Although the presidential primary candidates have barely cleared the starting blocks in their race for the nomination, the examination of their religious beliefs has already hit full stride. Numerous profiles and editorials have already implied that the Republican candidates are racing toward a theocracy. For example, in a hit piece for the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza says that the overarching thesis of his article is that Michele Bachmann holds “a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature.” But is this really true? Just how extreme can a candidate’s beliefs be before they are deemed unelectable?
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Imagine if a Republican candidate were to spend 20 years attending the Aryan Church of the White Christ. The candidate explains, more-or-less convincingly, that they are neither a racist nor a racialist. In fact, few people believe that the candidate—unlike the other nice people in the congregations—is a racialist, despite the fact that she did not disassociate herself from them or the church’s teachings.
Imagine also that she looked the other way and feigned ignorance of what her church taught, even when presented with evidence that there was no plausible way she could not know what was going on. How would you feel about such a politician? Would you regard them as a person of integrity? Would they be qualified to be the President of the United States?
The answer, of course, is that such an event isn’t even in the realm of possibility. There is no chance that the Republican Party would allow such a person to become the nominee, much less make it to the White House.
If no Republican could be allowed to get away with such an association, why was such behavior excused when the candidate was Barack Obama? At the time, Obama believed—as did most of the media—that his biggest problem was his relationship with Rev. Wright. The real concern went largely ignored. Obama’s association with the rogue pastor was forgivable; his association with Trinity United Church of Christ, however, was—and remains—inexcusable.
For over twenty years, Obama and his family were members of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC), an apostate, racialist church that makes no distinction between faith and politics. TUCC adheres to a form black liberation theology, a strain of heresy that makes Christianity subservient to a twisted, racialist political ideology. The purpose of Black theology is, as the movement’s founding theologian claims, to make political “liberation” the “central theme of the biblical message.”
As James Hal Cone, the founder of Black theology and a mentor of Rev. Wright’s, once wrote:
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community. . . . Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.
And in another book, Cone wrote:
For white people, God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ means that God has made black people a beautiful people; and if they are going to be in relationship with God, they must enter by means of their black brothers, who are a manifestation of God’s presence on earth. The assumption that one can know God without knowing blackness is the basic heresy of the white churches.
In 2007 Cone told Jason Byassee, a writer for the Christian Century, that “when he's asked where his theology is institutionally embodied, he always mentions Trinity.” An example of the influence of Cone’s “theology” can be found on TUCC’s website, under a set of 12 concepts known as the “Black Value System.” The concepts include:
Commitment to the Black Community. The highest level of achievement for any Black person must be a contribution of strength and continuity of the Black Community.
[. . .]
Pledge Allegiance to All Black Leadership Who Espouse and Embrace the Black Value System.
Personal Commitment to Embracement of the Black Value System. To measure the worth and validity of all activity in terms of positive contributions to the general welfare of the Black Community and the Advancement of Black People towards freedom.
This dangerous distortion of the Gospel is the foundation of what Trinity United Church of Christ believes and teaches.
This is the crux of the problem for Obama: Set aside the inflammatory rhetoric of Rev. Wright, even concede that the president knew nothing of his mentor’s hate-filled rants, and you’re still left with the troubling fact that for 20 years Obama was a member of a church that is founded on this racialist theology.
This is the despicable theology that was being preached while Obama was apparently asleep in the pews. This is the divisive teaching that Obama’s fellow church members embraced and spread throughout the black community in Chicago. I have no doubt that Obama is not a racialist and that he has never agreed with the basic tenets of his church. Yet I find the alternative explanation just as troubling.
Obama knew that as a modern Democrat he is not expected to believe—or at least act as if he believes—the teachings of TUCC or any other church. The tacit agreement between Democratic candidates and their voters is that it doesn’t matter whether a politician is a Protestant, Catholic, or religiously motivated racialist since they won’t let their church’s teachings conflict with their political ideology. They may claim to “Pledge Allegiance to the . . . Black Value System” but their true allegiance is to the value system of an irreligious liberalism. Religious language is still welcome if it merely substitutes for a liberal value (e.g., “social justice” used to justify redistribution of wealth). But if the two conflict (e.g., sanctity of life versus abortion rights) then the religious verbiage must be discarded.
This unyielding fealty to secularism has been harmful not only for religious Democrats but also for religious Republicans. Now that conservative religious voters have no place else to go, the GOP feels that they too can push religious voters to the back of the bus. Every election cycle they attempt to find a way to dismiss social issues in order to better appeal to “independents” (read: libertarians and fiscally conservative Democrats).
In our two-party electoral system, if one party is allowed to express its disdain for religion, it is only a matter of time before religiously informed views are excluded from the process entirely. For this reason we should view the attacks on the faith of GOP candidates as a positive, even if unwelcome, sign of stability.
The reason for the hatred is an assumption that the religion of Republican politicians does matter since they may actually believe such “illiberal nonsense”—or at least act as if they do even after they are elected. That provides us with a thin reed of hope that we will still be heard. When it gets to the point, as it has with Obama, where we can’t even pretend to believe that our candidates subscribe to their church’s religious views, then we will have reached the cynical bottom of electoral politics.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Trinity United Church of Christ, "The Black Value System"
R.R. Reno, Does the Tea Party Have a Religion Problem?